Newton City Commissioners voted in approval of a group residence ordinance — guidelines that will ultimately have an impact on the community’s homeless shelter debate.
After hearing comments from representatives on both sides of the issue at the Tuesday night commission meeting, commissioners unanimously passed the ordinance. The ordinance formally establishes what a "group residence," such as a homeless shelter, is, and how such residences will be authorized to operate in the community.
"We’re not permitting the operation of a (specific) homeless shelter," Mayor Jim Nickel said. "This ordinance that we’re passing is just a guideline. … This is just a way to try to regulate a homeless shelter."
"This deals with a larger topic," City Attorney Bob Myers echoed. "… It’s only after we have an ordinance like this in place that we can begin to take particular applications."
The discussion about group residences in Newton began after the Harvey County Homeless Shelter announced its plans to construct a new facility at the site of the old Bethel Hospital. The proposed site for the new shelter is near a residential neighborhood, and residents of the neighborhood have voiced some concerns about the project. Property owners felt it might not be safe to place the shelter in an area with children and families and said they feared there could be an increase in crime in the neighborhood. Homeless shelter board members have said they have a legal right to build and operate a shelter at the site, and the shelter already has spent $100,000 of donor money to purchase the vacant lot.
The Newton/North Newton Area Planning Commission put together their recommendations for the Newton City Commission, after researching the issue. According to the ordinance, a general group residence (occupancy of more than 15 people) would need a special use permit to operate in any residential district, commercial districts that are part of neighborhoods, and professional office zones. A special use permit application would include an overall site plan; interior floor plan; and facility management plan, which could include rules of conduct for guests, staffing requirements, scheduled hours of operation and protocol for communicating with neighbors and law enforcement.
Jim Elliott, president of the homeless shelter board, asked the commission on behalf of the board to not pass the ordinance and to allow the homeless shelter to operate at the proposed site.
"Throughout this process, the city of Newton appears to lack compassion and to practice discrimination," he said of the community. "… We understand that our neighbors — our new, proposed neighbors — don’t want us there. … Nobody wants us anywhere. That’s why we’re here, to provide a home for people nobody wants."
He said the organization wants to serve the community and establish positive relationships in the neighborhood it plans to move into.
"Our organization will do everything it can do to be good neighbors and improve the community," he said.
Pastor Vern Bender said he has been a long-time advocate for the homeless shelter, and like Elliott, he encouraged commissioners to not place restrictions on the shelter.
"It is a ministry of the gospel," he said of the homeless shelter. "… Our mission is to show the love of Jesus — not politics, or intuitions, or people. … It’s not that bad, dangerous place that has to have all these rules."
Others in the community asked commissioners to make the ordinance more detailed, stating they feared some of the consequences that could come if the ordinance is too vague.